Mumbai Massacre May Sink Bush-Obama Strategy

Pakistani troops take aim in Kashmir

Secretary of State Condi Rice, with the blessing of Barack Obama, has flown off to South Asia charged with the mission of preventing tensions between India and Pakistan from escalating in the wake of the Mumbai massacre. Both the current and the incoming U.S. Administrations consider that a matter of urgency in light of their shared Afghanistan outlook: Both are well aware that the key to stabilizing Afghanistan is not sending more Western troops (although both are committed to doing so anyway), but resolving the conflict between India and Pakistan, of which Afghanistan has lately emerged as a primary theater. (Pakistan nurtured the Taliban in the early ’90s and helped it take power in Kabul; India has been the key backer of the Northern Alliance which today is the dominant force in the U.S.-backed government.)

Washington wants the Pakistani military to turn away from its traditional mission of confronting India, and instead to focus on eliminating the Taliban and other Jihadist elements operating both inside Pakistan and in Afghanistan. That requires tamping down tensions across the borders, and finding a satisfactory diplomatic formula for addressing their 60-year conflict over Kashmir. (Obama was going to task Bill Clinton with this mission.) It was always a bit of a long-shot: Although the U.S. view is shared by Pakistan’s current elected civilian political leadership, that political leadership is notoriously corrupt and viewed with contempt by a military establishment over which it exercises no real control. The military has ruled Pakistan for most of its six decades of indpendence, and it’s a fairly safe bet that it will do so again at some point in the not too distant future. And the military, whose central role in Pakistani society has been established precisely on the basis of an existential conflict with India remains skeptical. Its support for the U.S. “war on terror” has been, at best, ambiguous. It has allowed the Afghan Taliban to continue operating out of its territory, seeing it as the proxy that counters Indian influence in Kabul. And some elements of the ISI have clearly continued to cultivate some of the more radical jihadist groups even as the Pakistani military is involved in counter-insurgency operations in Waziristan.

So, the Bush-Obama plan to reconfigure Pakistan’s strategic orientation was a tough call even before Mumbai. It may have become exponentially more difficult.
The geopolitical consequence of the Mumbai massacre, as I wrote last weekend, was always going to be a dramatic escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan. It’s highly likely that the attack was the work of groups based in Pakistan, identities as yet undetermined but with the Pak-based Kashmiri outfit Lashkar e-Toiba being the prime suspect. And it’s not only the fact that this attack probably originated on Pakistani territory that has India wanting Islamabad held accountable; it’s the track record of the Pakistani military and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) wing. “Terrorism has long been part of the Pakistani military establishment’s strategy of proxy warfare against India over Kashmir, and more recently, even, over Afghanistan,” I wrote last weekend. “Kashmiri jihadist outfits – some of them suspects in last week’s Mumbai attacks – have long been based in Pakistan and backed by its Inter Services Intelligence agency. When suicide bombers struck India’s embassy in Kabul in July, the CIA produced clear evidence of involvement by ISI operatives.”

Washington feared, with good reason, that the attacks would prompt both sides to concentrate their armed forces along their common border in a confrontational posture. And that, of course, would mean the Pakistani military would close down its campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan — which is exactly what Pakistan has threatened to do.

The problem for Washington is that India’s government is under tremendous domestic pressure to respond to an attack that Indian public opinion overwhelmingly blames on Pakistan. It’s not inconceivable that the tide of anger of the attacks could be exploited as a route back to power for the Hindu nationalists in India, who are already cynically painting themselves as the party that can “protect” India — although not its Muslims, of course, against whom some in the Hindu nationalist camp periodically unleash vicious pogroms. A return to power of the BJP would make rapprochement with Pakistan even more difficult.

So, Washington wants Pakistan to unambiguously align itself with India right now, as “two states threatened by terrorism”, pursuing those responsible for the Mumbai outrage. President Asif Ali Zardari, closely allied with Washington, tried to play ball, promising to send the head of the ISI to India to help with the investigation. The Pakistani military quickly slapped down that suggestion, sending only lowly officials, and embarrassing Zardari by making it clear that while he may be President, he doesn’t really make the decisions that count in Pakistan.

Now, Secretary of State Rice is flying in, warning Zardari that “this is a critical moment for Pakistan to bring all its institutions into a common strategy to defend Pakistan. And defending Pakistan means rooting out extremism, defending Pakistani interests means cooperating fully, defending Pakistani interests means investigating this so further attacks can be prevented.” She insisted on full transparency and pursuit of the investigation wherever it leads.

The problem, of course, is that Zardari doesn’t effectively control the security forces, nor are they likely to subject themselves to his control. His government was weak to begin with, his own reputation being widely disdained even within Pakistan. Public opinion there is overwhelmingly opposed to the U.S. “war on terror” and missile strikes on suspected militants in Waziristan have caused mounting public outrage since the summer. When Zardari asked parliament to debate a strategy against the homegrown Taliban, the legislature refused to endorse the military counterinsurgency campaign demanded by the U.S. and instead urged negotiations with the militants.

And when Zardari’s prime minister earlier this year sought to put the ISI under the control of the Interior Ministry, he was forced to beat a hasty retreat at the first hint of a growl from the military brass. Moreover, Zardari is a lot weaker now than he was then, thanks to an economic collapse that has forced the government to seek an IMF bailout to avoid bankruptcy. The problem with IMF bailouts, of course, is that they come with strict conditions that require the recipient to sharply rein in public spending, which means further austerity for a long-suffering population that has already begun to express its anger on the streets.

Pakistan, in short, is teetering, and it’s not hard to imagine a descent into chaos that prompts yet another military takeover. In fact, the only chance Washington has of achieving its goal of uniting India and Pakistan in a common struggle against Islamist militancy is if it is able to convince the skeptical Pakistani military establishment to pursue that course. Current indications don’t exactly inspire confidence that either the Bush Administration or the Obama Administration will be any more likely to resolve the India-Pakistan conflict than they are to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that, in turn, suggests that if it does send more troops to Afghanistan next year, the Obama Administration will be sending them into another quagmire.

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